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Paper Based Computing


Paper Based Computing, or, as it is more commonly referred to now, the smart pen, is a note taking technology developed in the last ten years. Paper based computing uses an electronic pen with a camera on the tip of the stylus on specially designed grid paper. This allows the pen to create a PDF or simple text document stored on the pen while a student writes with it, essentially digitizing their notes while they work. The pen usually comes with a microphone, and will sync audio that is recorded while the pen is in use to what was written by the pen at the time (Hammond et al., 2015).

Ahren (2016) evaluated the effectiveness of smart pens for students with disabilities over four years. Thirty-eight students with disabilities were followed through their college and trained to use smart pens to take notes; these students all cited highly positive experiences using the smart pens. This is consistent with other studies looking at the uses of smart pens in learning (e.g., Powers, 2010; also found students were highly motivated to use pens). Of the students, 34 progressed through the program with only three needing to redo modules and one withdrawing (Ahren, 2016). These figures are significantly above the average. Typically only 80% of students with learning disabilities who attempt college succeed, whereas here 97% succeeded. However, while they enjoyed using the smartpen, students were often ashamed to admit to others that they used it and cited it as a “noticeable support.” Most students preferred not to take it into the workforce after they were finished school.

Martin (2014)  conducted an experimental study on five students with reading and writing difficulties, and tested their note taking with and without smart pens. Three of the students showed significant improvement in quiz scores when they took notes with smart pens; their notes contained higher quality and a higher volume of information than without (Martin). The style and format of the student’s notes was not changed using the smart pens. However, students did not show any significant improvement on comprehension questions, suggesting the smart pen taken notes may only be a more efficient way of collecting information; it does not help with studying directly.


The pen can also be used as a scanner. Qi and Buechley (2010) created a pop-up book with smart pen sensors that could be scanned on each page. Students using the book cited it as fun to use. While the book was only a prototype, the research team discussed the positive outlook of readers and the interactivity elements of using the stylus to interact with the book as promising for the future (Qi & Buechley). The advantage these “smart books” may have over a simpler e-texts is undocumented.


Research Rating: The experiments discussed are largely quasi-experimental or with very small sample sizes. Effects described can be attributed to effects such as observer effects, placebo effects, etc. The exact effectiveness of paper based computing cannot be precisely described, and results should be interpreted cautiously.  


  • Makes note taking easier, which leads to better academics

  • Notes are more organized

  • Relatively easy to use

  • Students find it fun to use, may increase motivation


  • Noticeable support; however, students were embarrassed to use it

  • Somewhat expensive

To Consider

The paper based computing technology has demonstrated different results across different students (Martin, 2014). In addition, this is a fairly new product (~10 years old). It may be a good product to “sample” (if possible) if the child has fun using it and document individual responses, as the motivational effects have been well documented. Additionally, consider this product has been demonstrated not to aid in comprehension based questions, but has aided in better note taking. This suggests paper based computing would be, like many graphic organizers, best paired with a studying technique to improve academics.

Special Consideration: Workflow

OS Compatibility
Internet Reliance
Optimized Use

Exact prices change frequently, which is why only approximate ranges are listed. 

$ - Under $5

$$ - Between $6 and $50

$$$ - Between $51 and $250

$$$$ - Over $250



Ahren, Simon. (2016). THE LEARNING IMPACT OF SMART PENS ON STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES. Maynooth University Access Programme, Maynooth University, Ireland.



Hammond, T., Valentine, S., Adler, A. & Payton, M. (2015), The Impact of Pen and Touch Technology on Education: Human-Computer Interaction Series, Springer International Publishing Switzerland


Martin, A. (2014). Note taking skills using the LiveScribe pen: implications for college students diagnosed with learning disabilities.

Powers, M. F., Bright, D. R., & Bugaj, P. S. (2010). A brief report on the use of paper-based computing to supplement a pharmaceutical calculations course. Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning, 2(3), 144-148. doi:10.1016/j.cptl.2010.04.007


Qi, J., & Buechley, L. (2010). Electronic popables. Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction - TEI 10. doi:10.1145/1709886.1709909


Written by Francis Wall, Last Revision May 2018

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